Risky Living in Hope (Gen. 15:1-12,17-18; Php 3:17-4:1; Lk. 13:31-35)
Just before those famous lines we sang as a call to worship about “those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength,” we can read why their strength needed to be renewed: “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young shall fall exhausted.” In sum, life is hard, so people who would make it through need to wait upon the Lord. That word “to wait,” comes from a word for a line or cord, stretched tight. The verb to wait here means to be “stretched tight, or taut” waiting to see what happens. It is an eager and hopeful waiting, and, indeed, in another form becomes the Hebrew word tiqvah which means “hope.” Now, hope is faith in the future tense. Hope risks itself on what it cannot see.
Lent is a time to admit that following Jesus often requires risking ourselves on what we don’t see…yet. If your experience is anything like mine, you will know that, sometimes, life doesn’t match up really well with what we’ve been taught or come to expect that Christian life is about. Somehow, many of us got the impression that we ought not to have as much trouble, sorrow, or pain in life as we do. And we should be happier, more successful, wealthier, and all the rest.
The first thing that God said to Abram in our Old Testament Lesson was (to use King James language) “fear not,” or, to be more accurate, “stop being afraid.” But, we, as Abram of old, know very well that there really is plenty for us to fear as well. Some of our fears may be different than his, but they are real nonetheless. And fear can sometimes save our lives.
Do you wonder how Abram felt when God said to stop being afraid because, “I’m your shield?” or “Your reward shall be very great?” We don’t wait long to find out, for Abram took up this idea of “reward,” or “gift.” He reminds God of the promise that he and his wife would, finally, have an heir. God had promised that long ago, but there still was no heir. And Abram said so. In essence, he said, “Promises, promises.” “What can you give me, since (until now) you haven’t given me what you promised?” Abram said, “I’ve heard the promises before, where’s the follow through?” God responded by pointing to the starry heavens and saying, “You’ll have as many offspring as all these.” And then, inexplicably as far as I can tell, Abram had a transformative moment in which he decided to live his life as if he and Sarai did have an heir. And, the text says, “God reckoned it to him as righteousness.” That rather pious translation really means, “and God considered that Abram had done the right thing by risking his life in the direction of God’s promise, even when he couldn’t see it yet.
There follows a solemn and puzzling ceremony in which all this is formalized. But there still is no heir. In part of the chapter that we left out, God had some interesting words about those offspring that would be numerous as the stars. God said, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for 400 years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions…”
So, the heirs of Abram and Sarai will get a gift, too. But, by that time, they’ll need one. The essence of this is, that if we think that, living according to God’s promise means no challenges, no obstacles, no fears, no difficulties, no enemies, no tragedies, then we still don’t get it. This text refers immediately to the time that Israel spent in Egypt before Moses, but, I wonder, as generations of Abram’s spiritual heirs read these words, if they didn’t say, “to which 400 years do you refer?” “There have been so many long periods of horrid stuff in our history.” And can’t you and I add our own challenges, obstacles, enslavements, and the like? Don’t they seem to go on for a long time, if not 400 years? Don’t we, at least from time to time, have Abram’s sense that what God has promised and what we have experienced are not the same thing? Perhaps that’s because we don’t understand that the gift or the reward is not a smooth trip through life. The gift is the privilege of living life in hope, of risking everything to live by God’s values of love, mercy, grace, and peace. The gift is the journey of hope, and it’s the natural outgrowth and fruit of living trustfully with the God of promise.
The Epistle Lesson from Philippians was written to a wonderful small congregation that also was the first Christian congregation in Europe (as far as we know). The congregation was experiencing problems in its surroundings, and these problems were leading to problems within the community itself. In our reading the Apostle wrote that their community is a colony or commonwealth or outpost of heaven, a small sample of God’s life transplanted to the earth. Now that’s a bit like God’s promise to Abram. It sounded good, but people were not experiencing church life as a little slice of heaven, but as something much less appealing. People had begun pointing fingers at one another and saying, “It’s your fault we’re in this mess,” or “If you could just be a little more flexible…If you could only be a little more firm.” Weren’t they discovering that life is more complex than it seemed it might be when they decided to follow Jesus? The gaining of the promise wasn’t clear.
Paul responded that the only way to meet problems outside is by making sure we are together inside. And that doesn’t mean being uniform, it means being united in Christ. There are many ways of doing that, but in this passage, the specific way that Paul talked about it was in the selection of good mentors. Choose from whom you learn very carefully. Choose to learn from those who know the secret of risky living in hope. These are the ones who can teach you to live your faith as an adventure together with God. It’s worth looking for and listening to mentors who can teach us that the gift of God is not a slick trip through life, but living in hope, risking everything to live by God’s values of love, mercy, grace, and peace, toward what we cannot see. The gift is, once again, not something “won” in some way, but the natural outgrowth of living trustfully with God. Paul would add, of course, that our best mentor for all such living is Jesus himself.
Finally, in the Gospel Lesson, we find Jesus warned by some Pharisees that he’s in danger from Herod. This would be Herod Antipas (4 BCE-39 CE) who ruled in Galilee and across the Jordan in the Territory of Perea. It’s interesting that the Pharisees should warn Jesus about this, since he had been so hard on them here in Luke’s Gospel. Perhaps, we can reason that the Pharisees, given the choice between Jesus and Herod, had chosen Jesus as the lesser of two evils. Perhaps, they were only trying to frighten Jesus into leaving the area. From whatever motive, their warning was, at least, credible. Herod was known to be ruthless and had, in fact, killed John the Baptist. John had, of course, pointed to Jesus as the one who would baptise people with the Holy Spirit and fire. He was the coming one. So the danger was real.
Jesus faced this threat with neither apparent fear not anger, but with a kind of realism. He responded to the Pharisees with two metaphors concerning animals. He, first, said (about Herod), “Go tell that fox…” Quite often, we think of the fox as “sly,” or “clever.” The next metaphor that Jesus used however has to do with Jerusalem, referring to himself and Jerusalem’s people as a hen and her chicks. Have you ever seen what a fox will do in a henhouse? It is neither clever nor sly, but simply destructive.
Jesus called Herod a destructive killer of helpless people when he called him a fox. Then he said, “You tell him that I’m too busy about God’s work to worry about when or how it will end. In Luke’s story Jesus is very practical. He knew what his work was, knew where such work would lead him, and knew how it would end, especially with foxes like Herod around. At the same time, Jesus knew that the work he was doing (“casting out demons, and performing cures”) was work that the Holy One of Israel had given. His work was liberation, of setting captives free. Even in the death he would die Jesus would be doing God’s work, absorbing the worst that the foxes of this world could dish out and defeating it all by an ultimate act of self-giving love.
There is also the sad reminder that I mentioned just a minute ago that Jesus would have protected the folk in Jerusalem, known for killing prophets and murdering those who try to help them, as a hen protects her chickens. Mother hens don’t have much chance against foxes, but they will try, if the chicks will let them, but the folk in Jerusalem wouldn’t even have that much. So, the alternative was that they would face the foxes of the world alone, with predictable outcome.
So, how can we use our texts today to clarify our own lives of following Jesus this Lent? From all three lessons we can learn that following Jesus does not always seem to live up to the popular advertising that Christian life is unabated victory and joy if you just don’t sin. It’s full of complexity, complication, ambiguity and anxiety. Life’s not all good news. The real world can be scary sometimes. From Abram, we can learn to be forthright with God. We also learn that the reward God promises is not as a result of earning or doing anything, but is a gift that is the natural result of trusting God’s promise, even when our experience seems very different than the promise. The gift, as I’ve said before today, is living life in hope, risking everything to live by God’s values of love, mercy, grace, and peace, in spite of it all. The gift is the journey.
From Paul in Philippians we can learn that, although the promise is that life in the community of faith is a little slice of heaven, we don’t always experience it that way. The way to experience it is by coming together, not in uniformity, but in unity in Christ. One good way to do this is by seeking out good mentors who are skilled at bringing unity in diversity, in finding common ground among differences that are real.
From Jesus in the Gospel we learn that we need to be engaged with God’s liberating agenda of love and grace, so that we’ve got no time to worry about the foxes that want to destroy us. In the life of a small and aging congregation a particularly destructive fox is over-concern about survival. Like Jesus, we can learn to do the work of the Holy One…until we can’t anymore, not all of it, of course, but some of it. In the end of the day, the foxes are not as powerful as the power of love and compassion, humility and service.
So, yes, many will stumble and fall exhausted, BUT…
Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.